Before watching the movie:
Nobody wanted this movie, nobody saw this movie. I didn’t want it and I didn’t see it. I was completely unthrilled by the concept when it came out, and it still doesn’t excite me. But it was the last straw for traditional animation at Dreamworks, so I always though I’d eventually give it a chance, and now I am.
It’s such a generic pitch, I don’t even know what to expect, beyond probably not that great a depiction of Sinbad, since I understand the legendary figure as an Arabic or Middle Eastern sailor and he’s played by Brad Pitt. I don’t really know anything about the traditional character beyond that except for whatever I retained from that Popeye movie that I think had him as the villain, which I also don’t expect would be the most faithful.
After watching the movie:
Sinbad and his pirate crew plot to steal and ransom the Book of Peace, a magical book that protects the Twelve Cities, from the ship carrying it to Syracuse. Making quick work of its crew, Sinbad finds that the vessel is commanded by Prince Proteus of Syracuse, Sinbad’s childhood best friend. Undeterred, Sinbad tries to steal the Book anyway, but the theft is interrupted by an attack from Cetus the sea monster, and Sinbad saves Proteus instead before getting dragged into the water. Eris, the Goddess of Chaos, who sent Cetus, offers to make Sinbad’s dreams of a wealthy retirement in Fiji come true if he delivers the Book to her instead. Catching up to Proteus at Syracuse, Sinbad intends to steal it from the tower where the Book has been installed, but changes his mind when Proteus tries to introduce him to Marina, ambassador from Thrace, arranged to be married to Proteus. Eris disguises herself as Sinbad and steals the Book anyway, getting Sinbad arrested and sentenced to death if he does not return it. Wanting to give his old friend the chance to prove his story, Proteus offers his life in Sinbad’s place and send Sinbad to retrieve the Book. Though Sinbad fully intends to take this chance to flee, Marina, who was always enchanted with the sea, stows away to make sure that he makes good on her fiancè’s trust. Meanwhile Eris, always watching from her lair in Tartarus, sends monsters to deter the crew from ever making it to her domain.
I really wanted to give this movie a chance. I had hope it was a decent movie that was a victim of bad marketing, that it was set up by a studio that wanted a scapegoat, or that it was just not a good choice of story for the time it was presented in. But this is worse than a bad movie, it’s truly mediocre. Rather than introducing new audiences to the world of the Sinbad of legend, we get classical mythology in a blender, set in the Mediterranean instead of the eastern seas, a hodgepodge of very familiar names and monsters that enter, hit their marks, and exit. The only mythological creature from further east than Greek mythos is the Roc, which is just a giant bird. I know American audiences in 2003 may have been the least receptive to stories of Muslim origin, but maybe that just means it’s not the right time to tell the story they wanted to lean on the name recognition of.
There are so many interesting ideas squandered, or talked about more than shown. Proteus and Sinbad’s friendship is talked up a lot, but we don’t get a chance to see much of its effect other than Proteus staking his life on his belief that Sinbad would do the honorable thing, and he’s not in the movie except for the beginning and end. They turned Damon and Pythias into a ticking clock and then didn’t even spend much time reminding us the clock was ticking. The Book of Peace is incredibly confusing. Why is it a book? How does it “protect the Twelve Cities”? Why is it a book? Why does it light up a beacon and affect the weather? Why is it a book? Why were they moving it to Syracuse? Seriously, why a book? I don’t think I would be nearly as baffled if it was just a magic statue or a magic stone. They took the “it doesn’t matter” part of the definition of Macguffin entirely too literally. Everyone, even Sinbad, says he’s a cowardly mercenary who will always do the thing that benefits himself, and they say it at length, but we see him as a hero with a heart of gold from the very first sequence, so it’s not at all believable when, especially in the third act, Eris is monologuing about how Sinbad will always do the selfish thing and Sinbad concedes that she’s right. We don’t get any sense of that internal conflict. Nor does it really feel like Marina is all that conflicted about her duty to marry Proteus and her desire not to hurt him being pitted against her burgeoning screwball romance with Sinbad. It’s talked about, but we don’t see it. The subtitle suggests a story of either Sinbad becoming a legend or at least showing us someone we can believe already is, and neither really unfold. Also Spike the ship’s mastiff adds nothing, he may be the laziest animal mascot I’ve seen.
I do have to say that this is just about the peak of blending CG animation with hand-drawn animation almost invisibly. There are some flying camera moves that leave the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast in the dust. I get the sense it was fun for the animators, and maybe the writers felt like they were raiding a cool toybox. A lot of the cast, especially Pitt, seem like they’re here to cash paychecks, but at least Michelle Pfeiffer seems to enjoy hamming up Eris. If she’d been written with either more nuance or more camp, she would’ve been a lot of fun to watch.
Dreamworks specifically cited this movie, and their run of failures before it, as a sign that audiences didn’t want hand-drawn animation anymore. And at the time I felt that the novelty of CGI movies had worn off and the two mediums were on equal footing, but I can’t deny that the Monsters Incs and Shreks of the world were doing a lot better than the Road to El Dorados and Emperor’s New Grooves. I think there may have been a hubris or complacency as the animation renaissance was fading, and bad or half-baked ideas got greenlit that shouldn’t have been, but Shrek was essentially Dreamworks’ first hit that didn’t rely on telling a keystone story from a holy book for three and change world religions. Their CG movies may have been doing better than their traditional movies, but Antz and Shark Tale were still not that great. Traditional animators are also more expensive than CG animators (though I’m not sure how true that is outside of VFX work for live action movies), and that may have played a part. This movie wasn’t even a loss on its own until you factor in the promotion costs, just a disappointment ($81M gross vs $60M budget). Unsurprisingly, considering that Dreamworks from the beginning was deliberately positioned to go head to head with Disney, soon after Dreamworks killed their 2D projects, Disney cited Home on the Range, another kind of half-baked, “who asked for this?” movie, as their own disappointment that meant that 2D animation was being rejected by audiences, and that was pretty much it for western mainstream hand-drawn animation. So I consider Sinbad as the scapegoat for the entire medium. I never felt like audiences were done with it, but in hindsight, even if you account for bad writing, marketing, and timing, maybe they were kind of right.
I’m just so disappointed that this movie failed so middlingly in story. It’s not a disaster to jeer or an undervalued gem. It’s the albatross that excused the execution of a beloved medium in the mainstream. I hope there are people who saw this movie as kids and in another five years or so it comes roaring back on nostalgia and fans can tell me why everyone including me is wrong, but I don’t see it happening. This is the way an era ends, not with a bomb, but with a whimper.
i love reading your reviews, but, the way you started this one, i almost didn’t. But it was worth it for this one perfect line: “But this is worse than a bad movie, it’s truly mediocre.” Thank you!